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He loves this delivery job

Pete Bonfils has thrown more pitches than any man who has ever worn a Dodgers uniform.

Given up more home runs too.

Yet even the most die-hard Dodgers fans have never heard his name or seen him throw because Bonfils does most of his work before the turnstiles have opened.

Bonfils pitches batting practice to the Dodgers. He has enjoyed the thrills and perks of the job for nearly 30 years, making just $50 for each game at Dodger Stadium.

Truth is, he’d do it for free.

“I get excited every day I go out there,” he says. “When I pull up the driveway and get past the guards, everything disappears. You get to go into the clubhouse, dress and go out on the field.

“That’s why I still do it. I don’t take it for granted. Not one day.”

One afternoon in August, Bonfils arrives at the stadium nearly four hours before game time, parks in a reserved space and races past the locker room with a quick wave to the guard and a “hello” to a pair of clubhouse attendants.

He has his own locker in a corner of a spare clubhouse that has been turned into a weight room. While some of the early-arriving Dodgers grunt through their exercises, Bonfils changes into his dark blue jersey with a large white No. 62 on the back and hurries to the field to get in some running and throwing before it’s time to go to work.

As more than a dozen players stretch in front of the third-base dugout, Bonfils runs sprints alone over the manicured grass in the outfield before playing catch with hitting coach Don Mattingly.

The grounds crew wheels a batting cage into position around home plate and sets a portable pitcher’s mound — a slanted fiberglass board covered with plastic grass — about 50 feet away. Pitching from the portable mound allows Bonfils and the other batting-practice pitchers to move closer to home plate, saving wear and tear on their arms.

When pitcher Clayton Kershaw steps into the batter’s box, Bonfils grabs a ball from a metal basket, kicks his right leg into the air and smoothly delivers a belt-high fastball right down the center of the plate.

For 15 minutes he repeats the routine, throwing nearly 40 pitches each to Kershaw and three other players, who drive Bonfils’ offerings to all corners of the ballpark. Not bad for a 58-year-old guy who, in his own athletic prime, had more tenacity than talent and who pitched with more heart than heat.

His chief skill now is control.

“He throws strikes,” Mattingly says. “If a guy throws strikes, everybody’s fine with him.”

First baseman James Loney says Bonfils brings one other thing to work with him every day: his infectious enthusiasm, which can provide a lift when players are dragging.

“He enjoys it. He likes throwing,” Loney says. “He takes pride in it. He wants to be out there.”

From the first time Bonfils saw Dodger Stadium as a 10-year-old, he never wanted to be anywhere else.

“This was my dream,” he says of playing for the Dodgers. “All I knew was baseball. I loved it so much.”

**

A speedy outfielder with a good arm and a sweet swing, Bonfils was an all-league player at Pasadena High School in the late 1960s. At 5 feet 7 and 145 pounds, he was too small to be a major league prospect. But he found another way into a major league uniform.

As a high school junior, he accompanied a friend, whose father worked for the Dodgers, to Dodger Stadium one afternoon. When one of the ball boys called in sick, Bonfils was asked to fill in. Bonfils became such a frequent and dependable substitute he was given the job full time a summer later. And because he had a good arm and was left-handed — a huge bonus, because few hitters get to see pitches from that side of the mound during warm-ups — Bonfils began throwing batting practice.

He was good at it too. When the Dodgers traded catcher Jeff Torborg to the Angels before the 1971 season, Torborg begged Bonfils to drive down the freeway and pitch to his new team when the Dodgers were out of town.

In an improbable plot twist too corny for even the most desperate Hollywood screenwriter, an Angels scout happened to be in the ballpark one day. He spotted Bonfils throwing and offered him a contract on the spot.

“He had like a rubber arm, was a great athlete, could throw any breaking ball that you needed and throw strikes,” says Torborg, who keeps a framed picture of Bonfils atop a filing cabinet in his Florida home. “He was a great kid to have around.”

He wasn’t around the Angels for long, however, winning 12 games and losing 14 in four years in the organization’s minor league system. But in the Mexican League, where he went after the Angels released him in 1975, he was a star, winning 17 games once and as many as 11 games five times in eight seasons.

Along the way he made all-star teams, struck out home run champion Hector Espino (the Mexican Babe Ruth) and, because of his diminutive size and flowing shoulder-length hair, became a cult figure, with one team etching his likeness onto a plastic key chain it sold at the ballpark.

Bonfils’ competitive career ended in elbow surgery well short of the major leagues. But his dream of pitching again at Dodger Stadium didn’t die. A year after he retired as a player, the Dodgers, in need of fresh arms to relieve the aging coaches who generally pitched batting practice on the road, offered Bonfils a uniform, a locker and gas money to come back.

It was nearly a short stay. Former bullpen catcher Mark Cresse, who, as the man then in charge of batting practice, hired Bonfils and four other pitchers, said the lefty wasn’t immediately popular. Several players pulled Cresse aside and asked him to fire Bonfils.

“He threw a little bit harder than we do in batting practice, so a lot of the hitters didn’t want to hit off him,” Cresse recalls. “A lot of the guys [didn’t] want to work so hard during batting practice.”

“Personally, I thought it was good for guys that weren’t playing very much to face that kind of pitcher because it was close to what they were going to face when they got their at-bat. So I stuck with him.”

That was 1981. Bonfils has been a Dodger ever since.

**

During his time with the club, Bonfils has worked for three owners, eight managers and five Hall of Famers. He’s helped hone the swings of 10 Rookies of the Year, five Most Valuable Players, six batting champions and the top three pinch-hitters of all time.

“It’s such a big part of his life,” says Diane, a high school English teacher who has been married to Bonfils for 15 years.

Even though she has to share her husband with the Dodgers each spring and summer, Diane doesn’t fear the coming of the baseball season. Instead she fears the day his five operations — one on his elbow and four on his shoulder, the most recent in May — will catch up with Bonfils and sideline him permanently.

Bonfils’ boyish looks may hide his age: “He doesn’t look over 38,” Loney says. But his body definitely feels 58 at times.

“I work out every day,” Bonfils says. “I run every day. I do my weight exercises. I can’t just go out there now, at my age, throw five balls and be ready to throw.”

When the team is on the road, Bonfils keeps in shape throwing a ball against a brick wall in an alley near his Arcadia condo.

When slugger Manny Ramirez worked out at Dodger Stadium in secret each morning after he was suspended for failing a drug test last year, he asked the team to have Bonfils throw to him. But Bonfils already had a day job as an account executive at Young’s Market Co., a distilled-spirits distributor in Orange County, where he helps manage nearly $120 million in billings.

The Dodgers are one of the company’s more important customers, though, so Bonfils’ morning schedule was quickly cleared for Ramirez.

“I got dialed in more than ever. Because that was like my chance to do something special,” Bonfils says. “And I watched him hit balls halfway up the pavilion. You see how good those guys really are.”

Ramirez returned to the lineup to help the Dodgers to a division title, which the team celebrated with a raucous clubhouse party. In the middle of the mayhem, Ramirez sought out Bonfils and gave him a bear hug.

That division title also helped earn Bonfils a seat on the Dodgers’ charter flight to Philadelphia for last year’s National League championship series against the Phillies, whose pitching staff was heavy with left-handers.

“It was really an honor to do that,” he says of throwing batting practice in the playoffs. “It was cool. It was awesome.”

**

The recently departed Ramirez is one of Bonfils’ favorite ex-Dodgers, but the batting-practice pitcher admits that list is a long one, starting with the long-retired Maury Wills and including more recent former Dodgers such as Marquis Grissom, Orlando Hudson and Juan Pierre.

Getting to know so many players personally hasn’t dimmed any of the wide-eyed wonder Bonfils had the first time he saw a big league game. If anything, it’s made him a bigger fan, one who has devoted an entire floor of his two-story condo to a memorabilia collection that includes ticket stubs from every World Series game in which Mickey Mantle homered.

Bonfils has seats from Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ former home in Brooklyn, and an unused ticket from the last game played there. He has signed bats, autographed balls, hundreds of baseball cards and vintage collectibles dating back more than seven decades, including a rare signed photo of Babe Ruth in a Dodgers uniform.

It’s a collection worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame. However, his prized possession, a 1988 World Series ring, isn’t on display. It’s on his finger, a reminder that the kid who wasn’t big enough to be drafted out of high school and wasn’t talented enough to make it out of the Mexican League found a way to succeed in the game he loves.

“I made it,” he says with a smile. “I can die in peace. Something happens to me, drop the ashes over the stadium. They’re going to have to carry me away from there.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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